Modahl makes up for lost time

Mike Rowbottom reports from Mansfield on a runner who rose above the controversy
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YOU could excuse the twitchy impatience to start exhibited by Sale Harriers' second-leg runner at the national cross-country relays here yesterday. She had, after all, been waiting 20 months.

A tap on the hand from Sale's first-leg runner, Ann Griffiths, released Diane Modahl into her first championship race since the 1994 Commonwealth Games, from which she made a traumatic early return following the announcement of a positive doping test.

That is a charge from which Modahl, 29, is still seeking final exoneration from the International Amateur Athletic Federation. But the athletic pressures of an Olympic year are now growing steadily, and the former Commonwealth 800 metres champion rose to the challenge of yesterday's race in a way which pleased both herself and her husband and coach, Vicente.

Setting off into stinging hail on an achingly cold afternoon, she negotiated the three-kilometres course through Berry Hill Park - winding round a lake and through a copse of bare beeches - in 11 min 04 sec, to help her club win the women's title, just as she had at the same venue four years earlier.

Nothing was much changed, outwardly, from that time. Most of the spectators where competitors from other events. Old friends greeted each other. And the tannoy spoke of the imminent appearance of results sheets for 10p apiece. Before and after the race, Modahl changed her footwear in a clubhouse side room which she shared with two wheelbarrows, a collection of aluminium course markers and, surreally, a large blue plastic bread basket. The smell of linament permeated everywhere.

But if the setting was mundane, the emotions involved were not. Vicente said: "I was intending to shout some things out to her during the race. When it came to it, though, I just couldn't get out the words. I was close to tears watching her.

"I think it is going to be some time before we realise how hard it has been to come back. It is a matter of taking one step at a time. But Diane coped well with the emotional strain of facing the media and the public today."

Afterwards the relief showed in Modahl's face as she found herself talking animatedly, for once, about a race rather than a campaign.

"It was great to win," she said. "And there was an awful lot of support for me along the course. Somebody even said `you're looking great'. I thought, `Wow, I'll come back again.' "

But her return, even to this cheerful event, will be dependent on the IAAF's deliberations in Cape Town next weekend.

Coming after last month's impromptu appearance in a road race at Derby - her first competitive action since her ban was lifted - this performance represented another step back. Where the next step will lead is still uncertain, as the federation's council prepares to review the case when it meets in South Africa.

Modahl's return to competition may be confirmed via an invocation of the "exceptional circumstances" clause which is now written into the federation's rule book.

Alternatively, the federation may belatedly announce a date for its arbitration panel to judge last September's decision by a British Athletic Federation panel to lift her ban on appeal. Whatever the decision, Modahl will hear of it in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for where she leaves on Thursday for a four-week training break.

Modahl said: "Until the case is resolved it is still going to be at the forefront of my mind." Her impending high court action, seeking compensation from the BAF, is also keeping her preoccupied. Yesterday's run represented a real, if tantalising respite.